A few weeks ago, I found myself in the middle of a class discussion about Williams College Dining. Our class focuses specifically on the power dynamics inherent in the preparation and consumption of food, and during this seminar we were considering the ways in which the meals here at Williams affect our community. Our discussion was grounded in shared values of courtesy and respect — values that I think are emblematic of the Williams community. My classmates and I agreed that it is important to not marginalize members of our community through inaccurate or culturally appropriative names of dining hall meals (e.g. Arabian Vegetable Medley, Buddha Bowl).
However, the conversation took an odd turn. Instead of discussing the names of dishes, our conversation became a forum for general complaints about Williams Dining. These complaints focused on food quality and placed the blame for this perceived lack of quality on the Dining staff. Listening to this discussion, I could not help but wonder how a group of people who are so concerned for the situation of marginalized people and fair labor practices are so willing to be dismissive and rude towards Dining staff. An article in the Oct. 6 issue of the Record discussed how difficult working conditions are in Dining. The attitude of our student body is actively making a bad situation worse.
The way we, as students, treat Dining staff is disgraceful. The generally dismissive attitude expressed by students, combined with a complete disregard for the hard work done by Dining staff, shocks me every day. Even though most Williams students are kind and respectful to each other in one-on-one interactions, collectively we are fundamentally failing to show that kindness and respect to Dining staff. We must do better.
I live in Currier Quad, so I eat most of my meals at Driscoll. Every day, when I walk across the quad, I see plates, cups, and silverware stacked on benches or tables. Frequently, these dishes are left only feet away from the return bins or the door of Driscoll. Are we all so busy that we cannot be bothered to walk 10 feet to return our plates? Are our lives so rushed that it is an impossible imposition to clean up after ourselves? These dishes do not stay out in the quad; they are picked up by the Dining staff. While it only takes a moment to pick up your own dishware, when multiple students leave their dishes around every day, the time and effort adds up. When we fail to return our dishes, we signal that we do not value the time of the Dining staff.
This problem is not limited to the quads; inside dining halls it is common to see tables strewn with dishes whose diners have left long ago. Although it is inevitable that some food will be spilled, many tables are covered in crumbs by the end of a meal. This carelessness means that dining staff must come out during mealtimes to clean up after us. It is not hard to return your dishes, or to wipe up your crumbs at the end of a meal. Looking around any dining hall at peak mealtimes, I cannot help but wonder how busy we must think we are, and how valuable we must find our own time, that we are so willing to brush off the time of others.
Sometimes this carelessness becomes literally disgusting. On many occasions I see plates or cups tossed carelessly into the compost bins. Frequently, when I go to use the bins, I find that the trash bag has come unhooked from a corner and food has been dumped all over the bag and the bin. This is clearly a careless mistake, but it is a mistake that means that a member of the Dining staff must reach into the mound of food, scoop it back into the bag, and set things right by hand.
It is similarly disrespectful when we continue to overfill dish and compost bins around Paresky, instead of walking a few feet to a less overflowing bin. Few of us would want to deal with these collective messes, and yet we foist them upon the Dining staff. Is it so impossibly difficult to hang up a trash bag or walk a few feet?
But on top of all this casual disregard for the time of the hardworking people in the Dining staff, we, as Williams students, also have a problem of ingratitude. It is common practice to complain about the quality of food produced by Dining. While it is understandable to prefer home cooking over mass-produced food, what is not excusable is using personal tastes as a justification for being dismissive towards Dining staff. Regardless of your opinion on the flavor of a specific dish, Dining staff have worked hard to feed you every day and to provide a variety of options. Basic gratitude, such as eye contact and a “thank you,” should be the bare minimum expected of every student here.
On some level, it is possible to dismiss my claims by arguing that it is the job of Dining staff to clean up dishware and food while providing tasty meals to Williams students. Such a retort, however, is misguided. As anyone who has worked a job in the service industry can tell you, basic respect makes a difficult job much more bearable. The fact that Dining staff are paid to do this work does not mean that we have the right to treat them with any less respect than we do our professors, who are paid to teach us.
We, as Williams students, like to think of ourselves as kind and respectful people. I know that much of what I have discussed here is not the product of malice but of carelessness. However, carelessness cannot be an excuse to treat the people working hard to provide for us with disrespect. It is not enough to not intend harm. We must actively work against it.
Lee Benzinger ’24 is from St. Louis, Mo.